Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Bobos and Birkenstock Burkeans:
Rousseauian Conservatives?

Extending the theme first articulated by David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, Rod Dreher in the National Review has stumbled upon political conservatives who eat organic vegetables and granola, avoid T.V. and shopping malls, disdain modern architecture and suburban sprawl, and devote plenty of attention to faith and family. In fact, he knows of what he speaks in describing these “Birkenstock Burkeans,” because he is one himself.

Brooks was the first to note the general collapse of the distinction between bourgeois and bohemian and the rise of a new creature, the "Bobo," consisting of part bourgeois, part bohemian. Brooks chronicled the investment banker in the pinstripe suit sipping a latte in Starbucks on a break from the rat-race. More surprisingly, Dreher interviews and receives e-mails from followers of the Grateful Dead who listen to Rush Limbaugh, Evangelical Christians who use recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook, and vegetarian Budhist Republicans who want to talk about George W. Bush over a bowl of dal. While Brooks's Bobos, who mix bourgeois earning power with bohemian pleasures, might be of any political stripe, Dreher concentrates on "Crunchy Cons."

First of all, Crunchy Cons like nature more than is typically associated with conservatives. But they are more naturally drawn to nature, so to speak, than most liberals. They don’t worship nature out of some irrational, groundless, ascetic “commitment;” rather, they like the way organic vegetables taste. They also find respect for nature in such conservative authors as T.S Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, Teddy Roosevelt, and Russell Kirk. Crunchy Cons are not ludites or anti-scientific utopians like mainstream environmentalists, but they doubt the GOP’s prospects for stewardship of the natural world. Environmentalism is to the GOP what defense policy is for Democrats: they don’t like it or study it very hard.

An extension of the respect for nature is aesthetic appreciation. Conservatives (though certainly not Burke himself) don’t typically say enough about the beautiful, man-made or otherwise. As with the environment, they have allowed the Left to co-opt historical preservation and construction/development issues so that conservatives view concern with ugly suburban architecture, lousy food, chain restaurants, bad beer, and the arts as signs of elitism in the face of their populist authenticity. Once again, the GOP would do well to revise its thinking - or lack thereof - on aesthetics.

Dreher distinguishes between Brooks’s Bobos and the Crunchy Cons he describes by noting that his Birkenstock Burkeans typically are not rich and hold family and religion in higher esteem. Crunchy Cons tend to have a brood of kids, a typically well-educated mother who willingly foregoes her career to stay home, and a propensity for regular attendance at religious services.

Dreher provides excellent strategic advice for the GOP; clearly, the environment, nature, and aesthetics are important issues that the GOP ignores at its peril.

What Dreher -- and Brooks, for that matter -- fail to accomplish is a philosophical geneology of these activities and habits that we normally associate with the Left. Both of their accounts are rather philosophically thin; and this is disappointing because anyone who knows that Burke is the founder of modern conservatism surely understands other philosophic influences such as those of Hobbes, Locke, and Smith on liberal democracy and capitalism.

Rousseau as Conservative

Most importantly, our otherwise astute observers avoid Jean-Jacques Rousseau who for too long has been associated with the Left and whose fundamental conservatism has been neglected. It is not simply that these bohemian habits come from Rousseau who is the founder of the modern Left; of course they do. What is really important, shocking though it may seem to many, is that Rousseau is not simply a precursor to the modern Left. Rather, the author of the radically individualist Second Discourse which criticized private property and the radically collectivist Social Contract which praised the small republic also wrote novels dedicated to ennobling human beings living in large, commercial, modern nation-states.

Whatever its philosophic underpinnings, Rousseau’s political teaching is not a revolutionary one; it is fundamentally a conservative one that does not seek to overturn the large, modern nation-state, but stem its tide and ennoble the human beings already living under such governments. Among his major recommendations for advanced modernity are the sweetness of domestic life and heterosexual love within marriage. Even in his capacity as the founder of romanticism, Rousseau was seeking to support the bourgeois, not destroy him. "Family values" conservatives can find a lot to like in Rousseau, despite Burke's charges of pornography.

Additionally, as the founder of respect for local things and small republicanism, Rousseau is Tocqueville’s acknowledged teacher in profound ways. Rousseau allows Tocqueville to recognize the self-governing genius of America in the New England town meeting and the importance of family life in America; and nobody would ever call Tocqueville a revolutionary. Tocqueville agrees with Rousseau that the salient political question in modernity is how to preserve freedom and dignity in the face of encroaching centralized state power. This should make conservatives feel right at home.

There are many other ways in which Rousseau’s political conservatism may be shown, such as his attempt to legislate for Poland which takes the nation as fundamental and something to which politics must adjust rather than vice-versa and in which one finds advice to not forget what might be lost in dreaming of what might be gained. Incidentally, this book has been beautifully introduced and translated by an old conservative of whom the young whippersnappers on the "National Review" staff might have heard, Willmoore Kendall. Of course, Kendall was an unusual conservative who later in life put himself back to school, as it were, under the tutelage of Leo Strauss. In any case, Rousseau himself insists in his Dialogues: Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques that he is “the one man in the world who maintains the truest respect for the laws and national constitutions, and. . . . has the greatest aversion to revolutions and conspirators of every kind. . . ."

Our Bobos and Birckenstock Burkeans may owe more to Rousseau than they realize.


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